Unit questions mean there have to be units…

On another List, the cry recently went up from a teacher tasked with writing stuff for a new IB program:

I’m having trouble with unit questions (guiding question, essential outcome, enduring understanding). We’re supposed to come up with the big questions,but my kids can’t answer the big questions in French, and I’ve worked so hard trying to stay in French and TPRS things.

To me, this is another demonstration that language isn’t math, or science, or history.

Why this determination that language must be taught in units? Is it some natural human drive to organize things? Why should it fall to French class to teach the concept of “family”? Or does the concept of “family” simply fall out of the textbook’s inclusion of a “family unit”, so that must be the “concept” being taught (when the textbook was written with absolutely no regard to any such Great Questions of the Universe)? Is it efficient or desirable to teach new concepts using new language, rather than using the language in which the students are already perfectly fluent and able to concentrate on new and startling concepts? (Let’s leave off for a moment the question of whether it is really necessary to teach some enduring truth about what a Family is no matter in which class this takes place.)

Every other subject in an IB program is taught in English. I daresay that 99% of the students (or at least the students for whom the program is intended in the US) are fluent in English. They have no difficulty in expressing anything they want in English. At worst, they might have to learn three or four new words. So talking about Deep Thoughts and Essential Questions and Eternal Outcomes and all that is pretty easy. Everyone already has the tool needed to do it: a language in which they can easily express abstract ideas using any structure and a comprehensively broad vocabulary.

Okay, now let’s impose the same requirements on a group of French-speaking students who have never had any English. We’ll parachute them into Anytown USA (where the IB program has just been implemented) and demand that they write and speak about the same Enduring Truths. Not going to work out very well, I think.

This reminds me of a job interview I once did, for a very determinedly “successful” local alternative high school in which every student is required to take Chinese. The committee asked how I intended to integrate Chinese 1 into the other areas of study. I told them I thought maybe it would be a better idea to take a year or two to get the students to the point where they could participate in the other areas of study using Chinese first — that is, actually let them acquire some language first. After all, they had 14 years of English going in, nine or ten years of all the other subjects, and zero Chinese. But the committee thought they should be able to “integrate” in the first month.

What would that “integration” cost? Of course it’s possible to do it. You could give out topically-chosen vocabulary lists. You can teach language using any content you like, so there’s no reason why you couldn’t use sentences like “The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell” to teach the copula verb pattern.  Structure is structure, after all, from a linguistic perspective.

The problem is that we then lose our grip on high frequency. Teaching high-frequency structures using low-frequency vocabulary (or words that would only be high-frequency for the purpose of the in-school “unit”, which would then give way to another and another and another a few weeks later) doesn’t make for optimal acquisition.  And the reason is that language is being shoved into smaller containers than it was made for, by being compartmentalized into “units”.

Taking a year’s worth of “thematic units” and decompressing them so that they can spread out and mix up, then recombining them into each day’s content — that works better for CI-based instruction. Yes, you could do CI on themed content. But it’s hard to hit ALL the characteristics of really optimized CI — comprehensible, unpredictable, structured, compelling, and accurate — if you’re forced to work within themes that are further constrained by time. In particular, the “compelling” aspect suffers greatly.

With regard to the Big Questions for a French class, what are those supposed to be? What is the point of a French class in the first place? To learn French? To appreciate French culture? To realize that some people live differently than we do and speak a different language? Or to understand the concept of a Family?

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